The foreign ministers of China and Japan held their first formal talks in more than two years Saturday, a day after the Asian powers agreed to reduce tensions over territorial and historical disputes.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida met on the sidelines of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, reports in both countries said.
The meeting, the first at such a level since September 2012, just before ties soured over an escalating territorial dispute, came after Tokyo and Beijing agreed on a four-point accord to improve their relationship.
Wang called the agreement “a major step” in talks with Kishida, Xinhua said.
Kishida, meanwhile, said the talks were meaningful. “This created an important momentum to shift gears to bring Japan-China relations back to a normal track,” he said in remarks shown on Japanese national broadcaster NHK.
He said he had stressed the importance of a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported.
Friday’s agreement was widely seen as setting the stage for a summit between the two leaders on the sidelines of the upcoming APEC summit in Beijing, though no official announcement had yet been made.
The neighbours have not held a summit since December 2011 when then prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda visited Beijing.
Wang and Kishida only held informal meetings in August on the sidelines of a regional gathering in Myanmar, and during the UN General Assembly in New York in September.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to reporters, welcomed the Asian powers’ Friday deal.
“We think that any steps that the two countries can take to improve the relationship and reduce the tensions is helpful not just to those two countries but it’s helpful to the region,” Kerry said.
Relations between the world’s second- and third-largest economies have plunged in the face of rows over disputed islands in the East China Sea and Japan’s 20th-century aggression against China.
A key point of contention is that Tokyo has long refused to formally acknowledge that there is a sovereignty dispute over the islands, which it controls and calls the Senkakus, but which are claimed by Beijing as the Diaoyus.
The Chinese statement Friday said the two “acknowledged that different positions exist between them regarding the tensions” over the islands, while the Japanese text said they “recognised that they had different views as to the emergence of tense situations”.
Each used only their own name for the outcrops but both said they would set up a “crisis management mechanism” to keep the situation at bay.
Visits by Japanese politicians including Abe to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, which honours Japan’s war dead including convicted war criminals, are another issue, and the statements said they would make efforts to “overcome political difficulties” rooted in historical issues.
An editorial Saturday in China’s nationalistic Global Times tabloid Saturday, which is controlled by the Communist Party, said the agreement amounted to Tokyo “admitting that the disputes over the Diaoyu Islands’ sovereignty have become the new reality”.
But Friday’s statements were carefully worded, and Japanese media insisted that they did not amount to a recognition of a dispute over the islands.
The conservative Yomiuri Shimbun paper argued that Tokyo’s reference to “different views” did “not impair Japan’s position so far that ‘there is no territorial dispute'”.
It quoted an anonymous “foreign ministry executive” as saying: “The Japanese side has not made any concession on territory.”
Speaking to reporters before meeting Kishida, Wang suggested that any summit depended on Japan’s actions regarding the agreement.
“We hope that the Japanese side could seriously treat this consensus, implement it faithfully and honour its commitment and create the necessary and favourable atmosphere for a meeting between the two leaders,” he said.
The long simmering tensions between the two nations erupted two years ago when the Japanese government purchased from private owners the islets in the chain it did not already own, prompting vehement protests by Beijing and anti-Japanese demonstrations in China.
Increased patrols by ships and aircraft from the two sides in the seas and skies around the rocky islets have raised fears of armed clashes between the two powers.
Kerry cautioned that the two sides have plenty of work cut out for them to make the deal work.
“It’s the outline of steps that now need to be taken in order to really define how certain tensions are going to really be resolved,” Kerry said.
The US is Japan’s key security ally and treaty bound to defend it in case of attack.